When you think about abortion in the United States, you probably think of the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade. But abortion had been a problem for long before then.
The laws Roe v. Wade struck down had been enacted in the 19th century after the discovery of the process of conception. Those laws saved millions of lives, and one scholar has calculated that most people in the U.S. today have at least one direct ancestor who was born because of those laws. Amazingly, those laws were enacted primarily due to the efforts of one man.
And who is this amazing hero? The little-known Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer.
A Terrifying Discovery
Born in 1830 to a Protestant family, Storer earned his M.D. from Harvard before working for a year in Scotland under Dr. James Young Simpson, who first used chloroform as an early anesthesia.
Soon after starting his practice in the U.S., he noticed something peculiar: many of the problems his female patients had were the result of abortions.
How widespread was this problem? No one really knew. Abortion was a taboo subject in 19th century America and was hardly ever discussed. So he first talked to other doctors about his observations, and they reported the same thing.
Now, Dr. Storer knew the best science of the day, which had recently concluded that human life began at conception, rather than the medieval conception of “quickening.” This meant that abortion was the taking of an innocent human life. Terrified at the prospect that innumerable children were quietly being killed by their parents every year, he devoted himself to researching the full extent of the problem for the next few years.
A Feminist Revolution
In 1859, on the eve of the American Civil War over the evil of slavery, he wrote a report for the American Medical Association (AMA) on his research which concluded that the nation was suffering from another evil few even knew existed: that “thousands and hundreds of thousands of lives are… directly at stake, and are annually sacrificed” as a result of abortion.
In a journal article he published the same year, he explained his horror at what he had discovered:
If we have proved the existence of fetal life before quickening has taken place or can take place, and by all analogy and a close and conclusive process of induction, its commencement at the very beginning, at conception itself, we are compelled to believe unjustifiable abortion always a crime.
And now words fail. Of the mother, by consent or by her own hand, imbrued with her infant’s blood; of the equally guilty father, who counsels or allows the crime; of the wretches, who by their wholesale murders far out-Herod Burke and Hare; of the public sentiment which palliates, pardons, and would even praise this, so common, violation of all law, human and divine, of all instinct, of all reason, all pity, all mercy, all love, we leave those to speak who can.
At the time, the AMA had no formal guidance on abortion, so Dr. Storer formed the association’s first committee on the subject. In 1860, they wrote a letter to Congress and State legislatures explaining the scientific discovery that life began at conception and asking for new laws to defend the unborn.
With the help of early feminists, they succeeded: new laws were passed throughout the country that greatly restricted abortion and subsequently saved millions of lives. Scholar Dr. Frederick N. Dyer has done the math and figured out that most people living in the U.S. today have at least one direct ancestor saved by those laws. That means that if you’re an American, you probably wouldn’t exist without the work of Dr. Storer.
But that’s not the end of the story.
While Dr. Storer was working to stop abortion, he noticed something: the Catholic Church was a strong ally, but most Protestant clergy ignored the issue. As a result, most abortions were being performed for married Protestant women. Over time, this had an effect on him.
Then, in 1872, he suffered from a terrible infection. While in the hospital, he received care from a kind Catholic nurse. Four year later, he married her. And two years after that, he converted to Catholicism.
Praise God for the life and work of Dr. Horatio Storer!
[See also: 5 Feminist Pioneers Who Were Against Abortion]